Like every gay man I’ve met, I know about the risks of unsafe sex and how to protect myself against contracting HIV. In the 1990s, I assumed that all single gay men practiced safe sex and that those who became infected during that period had just been plain unlucky. Either the condom broke or some other mishap negated its effectiveness. It never occurred to me, knowing what we know about how the virus is spread, that a gay man, particularly an intelligent one, would not take proper precautions. It made sense to assume that all gay men played safe.
But, at the end of the decade, friends starting telling me about times when they played “unsafe.” And in many cases, the indiscretion occurred not with somehow they knew, but with a random hookup. In some cases, the guys had been high on drugs. Others got lost in the moment. But, in some cases, both men were fully conscious of what they were doing. An online “chat buddy” (whom I never met) confided that he contracted the virus when he allowed a guy he met at a bar to penetrate him without protection; the guy had assured him he was negative.
When I moved to LA in 1999, I soon learned that unsafe practices, while not the rule, were certainly not the exception. A friend related how one man pursued him for several months online, but [the pursuer] stopped chatting with him when he [the friend] made clear that he only played safe. I kept hearing stories of unsafe sex that, at one point, it seemed I was the only man in West Hollywood who had never played unsafe. Thankfully, I have learned that I am not alone. Many, if not most, gay men continue to play safe.
Still, given all the anecdotes I had heard, it shouln’t haven’t shocked me to read the following in the “NEW YORK TIMES:”
In 2003, a survey by New York City’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene found that more than half of city residents with multiple recent sexual partners had not been tested for HIV in the previous 18 months, and 40 percent said that they had not used condoms the last time they had sex.
Forty percent didn’t use condoms. Now, I’m not privy to the actual survey, so perhaps, some of forty percent did not engage in sexual activities which require a condom to be safe. Or so I hope.
I’ve been trying to figure out why it is that so many gay men continue to play unsafe, risking their health, their lives even, in the process. An H.I.V.-positive woman told the “TIMES,” medications give people a “sense that they could do things that before were a death sentence.” The paper quoted Will Elosei who said, “People got so comfortable with the drugs that they have started becoming complacent.” Too many gay men have become complacent.
But, I wonder sometimes if it’s more than that, that too many gay men have become so “obsessed with sex” that everything else becomes secondary, not only the health and lives of others, but their own health and lives as well. For all too many, the quest for the best sex eclipses all other things–and becomes the be-all and the end-all of their gay identity. And the meaning of their entire lives.
I salute Christian Grantham for devoting a number of posts this week to the irresponsible behavior of certain gay men, particularly as it relates to the use, or should I say, abuse of crystal methamphetamine. Check out his posts: here, here, here, here and here. Andrew Sullivan doesn’t mince words when describing this drug which facilitates unsafe encounters: “It’s evil, potent beyond belief, it’s destroying people’s minds, careers, lives and souls.”
The man in New York City who has contracted the strain of HIV which is highly resistant to drugs apparently became infected while engaging in “unprotected anal sex with other men on multiple occasions while he was using crystal methamphetamine.” According to the “NEW YORK TIMES,” health officials believe “the drug’s stimulating effect and erasure of inhibitions contributes to sex marathons that have increased the spread of H.I.V.”
Eva Young who alerted me to some of the articles and one of the posts I reference in this piece has put together a tough but insightful post on the topic and faults those who makes excuses for crystal meth-users as enabling “irresponsible — and potentially lethal — behavior.” She suggests that parts of gay male culture are to blame and notes how some voices on the far right are exploiting the situation.” (Read the whole thing.) In a private e-mail to me (which I reprint with her permission), she wrote:
some gays are afraid to speak out about this type of stuff-because they perceive it as giving ammo to the religious right — but I think gay men can’t afford not to speak out about this.
She’s right. We can’t afford not to speak out about it.
Playwright and activist Larry Kramer agrees, saying that given the increase in unsafe sex, gay people are “murdering each other. . . . Please stop with all the generalizations and avoidance excuses gays have used since the beginning to ditch this responsibility for this fact.”
Larry Kramer’s right on this one. We are responsible for our own behavior. Life is such a precious gift. Knowing what we know about how AIDS is spread, how easy it is to protect ourselves, it seems natural that all gay men would take precautions, not only to protect their own lives, but those of their acquaintances, friends and lovers. It’s other gay men they are hurting with this behavior.
Andrew says we should insist on “zero tolerance of this drug among our friends and loved ones.” Others have suggested more aggressive tactics. But, will they work? Gay men know the risks, yet continue to play unsafe.
I wish I could use this post to provide some sort of solution. I can at least exhort our readers who are not in monogamous relationships to play safe. But, I’m sure you all have heard such pleas before.
Beyond that, I don’t know what the answer is. I’m still trying to make sense of those who regularly, repeatedly engage in unsafe activities. At the very least, we must talk about this problem and refuse to make excuses for drug abuse and unsafe sex. We must also make clear that the new drugs are only a treatment and not a cure for AIDS. And a treatment that doesn’t always work. And we must continue to remind people what a precious gift life is and that our lives are worth preserving.
-Dan (aka GayPatriotWest): GayPatriotWest@aol.com